The phone rang. “Hacienda San Augustín de Callo, buenas noches,” I said into the receiver, trying to keep my chattering teeth from affecting the delivery. A woman replied in what sounded like a drugged monotone.
“Niña, my husband needs no less than eight pillows to comfortably lay on or else he can’t possibly be expected to sleep. Unfortunately, I only see six. Bring two more to room 11 immediately.” She hung up without waiting for a reply.
I dragged myself out of the office and into the subzero highland night, shivering my way past the Imperial Inca walls holding up the hotel. A light-skinned woman just a few years my senior opened the door, revealing a pale old man passed out across the bed. The sweet smell of smoke from their fireplace and the scent of our hotel’s homemade hot toddies waved in my face like a flag, teasing me with something that could warm me from the inside out. But the woman shut the door as soon as I handed over the pillows, and I went back out into the night, cold and quiet as the volcanoes that encircled us.
It was my third month in Ecuador and I was completely broke. I was living and writing in Quito, locked away in a colonial apartment I could barely afford, sending pitches by day and reading rejections at night. The rent was due and my tourist visa had expired; I was caught in the tangle of red tape required to gain citizenship through my mother, a native. Fortunately, my Spanish roommate had recently slept with the co-owner of a hotel hidden in the pleats of a nearby mountain, and they were hiring. “Venga tía,” she said. “This is your chance!”
Hairy, Israeli and deadly serious about everything, my roommate’s one-night-stand, Itzhak* met me in our kitchen one evening. “We’re looking for an office manager to work at a hacienda at the foot of Cotopaxi,” he said, referring to a snow-topped volcano just south of the capital. Haciendas are colonial-era estates that started springing up around Latin America when the Spanish came and are now often renovated into luxury hotels; I imagined someplace pretty with an ugly past. “We pay competitively and you could live rent-free on location.”
“When can I start?” I asked.
A day or two later, Itzhak led me to the home of a wealthy woman named Magda Plaza. She looked and acted just like Miss Trunchbull from Matilda, but she warmed up once she realized I was actually a gringa. “Well, you don’t look American,” Magda said, waving us inside with a tentative hand, scanning my person for signs of my supposed nationality. Bullfighting memorabilia and black-and-white portraits of mustachioed men were arranged throughout her salon. When she caught me staring at a photograph of a former congressman, she asked, “Maybe you’ve heard of my father?” The Plaza name has long been a powerful one in the country. Magda’s uncle served two stints as president of Ecuador, as did her grandfather, who used to own half of the country. All that was left of their estate now were 80 acres of land, which Magda had inherited and flipped into a hotel. “This is not your regular hacienda,” she admitted.
The next day, the three of us made our way southward on a stretch of the Pan American Highway known as Avenida de los Volcanes because no matter what way you look, there’s a volcano staring back at you. The city lapsed into miles of laurel and Andean cedar until we reached the stone structures of Hacienda San Augustín de Callo, which had been constructed by the Incas in the 15th century. Archaeologists said it was either used as a palace for ceremonies or as a shed for tools. Magda’s family went with the palace story and priced it accordingly.
A swarm of subordinates rushed out to greet us and within seconds Magda went from a dignified woman to someone with a short temper and a sharp tongue, harboring zero qualms about embarrassing an elder in front of their family. The laborers were all indigenous or mestizo—small-framed with high cheekbones and leathery skin, not very different from my own makeup—and seemed to shrink with every lash of her words. “Si, Señora. Tienes la razon, Señora. Lo siento, Señora,” they nodded, practically bowing. I pulled my bag closer to my body. If Magda found out I was really a fraud—a high-school dropout with no skills other than swiping just enough of her roommates’ food to survive without them noticing—would she treat me the same way?
A man named Ernesto, who was wearing jumpsuit soiled in ash, showed me to my room. The space was large and hand-painted with murals of white-skinned angels floating in some celestial paradise; the window faced west, with a view of baby llamas grazing in a field. Ernesto set about lighting the fireplace as I watched, wondering if he saw right through me. Instead, he asked me to join Magda in the restaurant after I was settled.
The dining room’s Incan walls looked quilted in the candlelight, like the padded cell of an asylum. Magda sat at the head of the table beside a few aging white guests, promptly introducing me as an American travel writer of Ecuadorian lineage—“So she has the best of both worlds,” whatever that meant. I thought back to my first visit to Ecuador, seated around a table with my mother and aunts who were chatting about their domestic workers. “Do you have a maid in New York?” they asked my mom. We looked at each other and laughed. “We are the maids in New York” I said, but my Spanish was bad and my mother had to translate, shifting in her seat as she did.
A thick Cabernet was poured into my glass. An effeminate waiter with well-gelled hair who called himself Firenze gracefully attended to all of our needs before smoothly slipping back into the shadows.
Soon after, a tipsy Magda declared that “Ecuadorians are lazy,” before gesturing my way. “Bani will bring that much needed American finesse to our hacienda.” The white people just scratched their comb-overs as she continued her rant. “They don’t know how to take direction, they don’t understand business and let’s be honest—they’re all slow...and basically stupid.” Firenze stood motionless in the corner like a lamp that had been turned off.
Afterward, Itzhak led me into the office where some workers had gathered. “Listen up, everyone. Bani is from New York, she’ll be in charge for now on. I want you to follow her every order,” he commanded, and lumbered out.
I asked what their responsibilities and hours were like. One young worker was blunt: “We all pretty much do everything, working 12-16 hours a day, six or seven days a week.
I swiveled in my chair. “Well, not anymore. For now on, no one will be putting in such ridiculous hours. I for one, refuse to.” They glanced at each other, amused by my naivety.
The next day I worked 12 hours straight.
I was moved into employee housing. From the walls to the linens, everything had some sort of stain or hole, stinking of old dust. There was no heat. No meals had been offered to me so I picked from guests’ leftovers in the kitchen between phone calls.
I thought my position would be something like a cross between a host and office manager, but like everyone else, I ended up doing a little bit of everything: taking reservations and dinner orders, washing sinkloads of dishes in icy mountain water, crawling into fireplaces to light them for guests, mixing drinks at the bar, arranging rose petals in the shape of hearts on a bed for honeymooners. Whenever work demanded that I travel into town, I had to shell out the cash for my own transportation and every time I asked my co-workers when I was getting paid, they directed me to our bosses, who were unreachable in Quito.
A month into working at the hacienda and yet to see a paycheck, I wandered over to a desk in the common room, where old photo albums dedicated to the history of the hotel were laid out for guests to peruse through. Ernesto walked in and joined me on the couch, pointing out family members in the faded photos. “How many generations of your family have worked for the Plazas?” I asked.
“Oh, since they’ve been here. All of our great-grandparents lived free on these lands before Señor Plaza bought the cattle ranch in the early 1900s, then everyone who couldn’t avoid it became his slaves. A century later, and we still don’t get paid!” I stared at him, speechless.
Back in the office, I sat at the computer and tried to look up payroll records, which were disorganized beyond imagination. But there they were, confirming what everyone had been hinting at since I’d arrived: No one had been paid in over 3 months. Magda had gone bankrupt and everyone else was paying the price. She’d spent her inheritance on every last lavish detail of the hotel and now the numbers were catching up to her—or, at least, to everyone else. Just then, Firenze charged in, looking regal in his overcoat.
“Call me a driver,” he demanded. “I’ve had it!”
“What, they haven’t paid you either?” I asked.
“Honey, they haven’t paid anyone. Do you see how these people treat me? At least I have a cevichería in Quito. I’m going back to work there and I’m never looking back. I suggest you come with me, girl.” So I did.
I sent Itzhak and Magda e-mails and left messages asking for the few hundred dollars they owed me, and our friendly relations immediately turned sour. “You’re a selfish brat,” Itzhak wrote. “You won’t see a penny from us.”
“I’m disappointed in you,” said Magda. “I thought you’d be more American. But it turns out you’re just another Ecuadorian.”
At least that’s the excuse she used to treat me that way, which is more than the other workers ever got. Their conditions were as stuck in time as the dense Imperial walls that held them in, so resolute that not even a sheet of paper can slip in through the cracks. Sometimes I’d catch people trying to make their way out, in vain.
With no way to pay rent, I was kicked out of my house just a few days before Christmas. The city was so dry that fires erupted all over the Andean hills and icy peaks, usually obscured by clouds, seemed to glow in the sunlight. I left Quito and camped on a friend’s stretch of land in the south where a small group of people were gathering to celebrate “the end of the world,” (as the gross misinterpretation of the Mayan calendar came to be known). One of them let me crash at their place back in the capital while I figured things out and eventually, I moved in.
In Ecuador, we ring in the New Year by burning the años viejos, the old years, which come in the form of life-size papier-mâché puppets. At midnight, we douse them in gasoline and set them on fire, toasting one another as the flames dance across the city and through the mountains, as far as the eye can see. I spent the first day of that year wandering around the deserted streets that were lined with pile after pile of ash, thinking of Ernesto’s soiled jumpsuit, about nights as cold and dormant as the volcanoes that soundlessly encircled us.
*All first names have been changed.
Image via Shutterstock.
Bani Amor is a queer mestiza travel writer from Brooklyn by way of Ecuador who has been published in Paste Magazine, Nowhere Magazine and Bitch Media, among other outlets. Follow her on Twitter @bani_amor.
Flygirl is Jezebel’s travel blog dedicated to adventures big and small, tips and tricks for navigation, and exploring the world at large. Have a story or an idea? We’re always taking submissions; email us with “Flygirl” AND your topic in the subject line. No pitches in the comments, please.